Salman Rushdie versus the mullocracy

Colin MacCabe reviews "Joseph Anton: a Memoir".

Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie. Photograph: Getty Images

Joseph Anton: a Memoir
Salman Rushdie
Jonathan Cape, 656pp, £25

The first policeman would arrive at our house up to an hour early to make an initial search. It was before the days of mobile phones but there would be a lot of traffic on sophisticated walkie-talkies and then a large black car would pull up outside. Our front door would be opened as the car stopped and a man wearing a baseball cap would emerge. Once he was inside, the cap would be removed, the door shut and, except for the policemen watching television upstairs in one of the children’s rooms, it would be just another dinner party in Islington.

Nobody thought it extraordinary at the time but this book reminds us that it was. Ours was one of many houses in which Salman Rushdie was always welcome as a guest after he had been condemned to death by the mullocracy in Tehran. What was extraordinary, as this book insists on several occasions, was not just that so many friends – and we were in the outer circle – were determined to offer him hospitality and refuge but that they kept it secret. In nearly ten years, no word of any kind leaked out. The chattering classes didn’t chatter.

The title page of Joseph Anton announces a memoir, the genre of our age, and from one perspective that is an accurate description. The book takes us through a childhood in Bombay and then boarding school at Rugby; our pro­tagonist studies at Cambridge before becoming an advertising copywriter in London. He is desperate to become a writer and desperate to understand his translated situation, to conjugate his Indian and his English selves. These twin desperations fuse and give rise to a great novel, Midnight’s Children, which is both Rushdie’s story and the story of modern India. He follows this with Shame, a much shorter novel but equally fine, which takes as its topic Pakistan.

If these two novels bear witness to Rushdie’s experience of being brought up as an Indian Muslim and to a partitioned subcontinent, they do not address his experience in England or his experience as a Londoner. London is the site of his comfortable, middle-class existence and the destination of the vast numbers of immigrants who have made the journey from the subcontinent in altogether more uncertain circumstances. He thus conceives of a book with ambition far outstripping that of his previous, very ambitious books; it is an attempt, as Milton put it, to achieve “things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme”.

If this memoir were a conventional addition to the form, then the part of the story that takes us through the first two-thirds of the writer’s life would have taken up about 400 pages of this book of more than 600 pages. Yet a little more than 70 pages are devoted to it. The reason for this is that the ambitious book Rushdie publishes, at the age of 42, is The Satanic Verses. Joseph Anton is not, then, a memoir in the sense of a subjective account of a life; rather, that account is part of a history, of an objective account of what happened after the author was condemned to death by Ayatollah Khomeini.

The book opens with a bravura account of 14 February 1989, the day Rushdie was woken by a phone call from a BBC reporter asking him how it felt to be sentenced to death. This prologue is followed by the account of his life up to that day, a story that will be familiar to readers of Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses, for Rushdie shares many details of his life with Saleem Sinai and Saladin Chamcha, his fictional alter egos.

Rushdie further signals his distance from the memoir form with his decision to write not in the first but in the third person. This device, slightly odd in the discussion of his early life, pays off once Khomeini has pronounced his sentence. For at that moment Rushdie the writer, well known internationally in literary circles, becomes a world-historical figure – his name instantly recognisable around the globe. Rushdie is well aware of the almost accidental nature of this fame and the distancing device by which he turns himself into a figure in a wider history works brilliantly. It is the formal analogue of the extraordinary psychic adjustment that he had to make in order to cope with events that would have driven many insane. Indeed, he could have been forgiven for succumbing to paranoia or megalomania.

The extent of Rushdie’s fame was brought home to me in 1997 when, while he was still under full security protection, he came to give a reading at the University of Pittsburgh, where I teach. When he entered a hall packed with 800 members of the faculty and students, the audience erupted into a five-minute ovation quite unlike any reception I have ever witnessed in an academic setting.

Equally memorable was the occasion when I took him to an Italian restaurant high above Mount Washington so that he could enjoy a spectacular view of Pittsburgh and its three rivers. The restaurant had not been alerted to the visit but we were barely through the front door when the barman, who looked more like a character from The Sopranos than a habitué of libraries and bookshops, abandoned his post to greet us formally: “Mr Rushdie, it is a great honour to welcome you to our restaurant.”

Anybody who comes under the kind of protection that Rushdie was accorded after the fatwa must choose a pseudonym, a nom de guerre. He composed his, Joseph Anton, from the first names of Conrad and Chekhov and this name gives the book its title. Rushdie is a historian by training and the book is perhaps best described as a chronicle. It takes us step by step through the events following the fatwa: first, the battle of ideas, then the political struggle. In both strands, there are the good, who defend stalwartly a friend and a cause; the bad, who through fear, jealousy or stupidity abandon the most elementary defence of freedom; and the ugly, a succession of clerics and bigots who want the unbeliever killed as quickly as possible. In this unlovely gallery, Iqbal Sacranie, Tony Blair’s favourite Muslim, cuts a peculiarly disgusting figure.

The story Rushdie tells is never less than gripping. And there are moments, particularly in his description of his now regretted reconversion to Islam, when he writes as well as he has ever done. And there are also the personal details: an account of a much-married, uxorious man and most insistently, perhaps, the thoughts of a devoted father.

When Rushdie first told me in the mid-1980s of the new novel he was writing, which had as its centre Quranic verses accepting other gods that the Prophet then disowned, he was emphatic that what he wanted to do was to create a space in which one could pay one’s respects to Islamic culture without believing in God. This was his unforgiveable sin. If he had written a book that repeated the ludicrous slanders of medieval Christianity to the effect that a Christian necromancer had dictated the Quran to Muhammad or that he had died making love to a Jewess and then his body was eaten by pigs, no mullah would have felt threatened. For Muhammad, unlike Moses and Jesus, is a fully historical prophet. We know exactly how he lived and died.

Equally, a full-frontal attack from the perspective of modern atheism, à la Richard Daw­kins or Christopher Hitchens, in which the whole edifice of belief is reduced to nonsense would have troubled no one. What Rushdie dared to do was to attempt to appropriate the Islamic tradition for unbelievers, to take it out of the hands of the clerics. Ayatollah Khomeini didn’t have to read the book to recognise it for the threat it was and perhaps still is.

Sadly – but probably inevitably – reading this otherwise inspiring book jostles with the recognition that Rushdie has now given up this struggle. Islam is as the Islamophobes would have it. Early on in Joseph Anton, as he describes the moment at which Midnight’s Children took shape, he writes: “He was a historian by training and the great point of history, which was to understand how indi­vidual lives, communities, nations and social classes were shaped by great force yet retained at times, the ability to change the direction of those forces, must also be the point of his fiction.”

However, no attempt is made to offer a historical explanation of Islamic fundamentalism; instead, in the architecture of the book, it becomes as incomprehensible as the malignant birds in Alfred Hitchcock’s great movie.

Islamic fundamentalism, like its Christian counterpart, is a recent phenomenon. “Born again” as an adjective does not occur in American English until 1959. The thinking of al-Qaeda springs from the writings of Sayyid Qutb in the same decade. To an old-fashioned Marxist, the explanation is obvious: these fundamental­isms indicate the failures of capitalism to offer even the hope of a system of global justice in which the staggering advances in knowledge and science over the past 400 years would contribute to the general well-being of the species.

The academic Darko Suvin once remarked that the desire to be born again amounted to an immanent critique of capitalism. Islamic fundamentalism is born in the failures of third-world socialism. If its intolerant ideas must be continuously contested – and Rushdie’s book shows him as eloquent as ever in this contest – they will only evaporate with social and political changes of which there is currently little sign.

Colin MacCabe is distinguished professor of English and Film at the University of Pittsburgh